I have been a fan of sculptor Anne Truitt’s writing since I read her book Daybook many years ago. First published in 1982, Daybook is Truitt’s personal journal while working at Yaddo, and her insights into the squirrely nature of the creative process spoke to me. Her style is nonlinear and yet insightful, personal and yet not too. When the book came out all those many years ago, there weren’t a lot of witnessings available of how women artists were navigating that behind-the-scenes art making life. There are lots of them now.
Truitt went on to write a few other similarly styled books, like Turn and Prospect. But none had as powerful an impact on me as that initial exposure so many years ago.
Her sculpture was harder for me to connect with. A Truitt was always easy to spot because almost every piece in a public collection is a slender wooden column painted with care and artfulness. Most collections have one. I liked her essential idea—a minimalist, Supremacist project that combines 3D and a feathery fine-tuned sense of color—but my “in the flesh” experience of the work just never held me in awe.
But that all changed when I visited Truitt’s retrospective, “Anne Truitt: Perception and Reflection” at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC. This is her first major show since the 1970s and includes both paintings and sculpture from her 50 year career. (Truitt died in 2004.) In the literature that accompanies the show (curated by Kristen Hileman), the column sculptures are referred to as Truitt’s “profoundly focused practice. Acting as a painter as well as a sculptor, the artist wrapped color around the corners of these sculptures, creating visually poetic relationships between structure and surface. Throughout her work, she investigated proportion, scale and color, as well as perception and memory.” Profoundly focused practice is a perfect phrase. The work has a meditative, disciplined, higher state of mind quality to it.
This is work that needs to be seen with its full gaggle of siblings. Placeholder pieces, token Truitts, cannot do the job. This is not one-up work. It is a body of art that demands your complete and undivided attention. You need to be able to lift out of the gallery, out of the museum, out of this terrestrially bound existence so that you can levitate in and around these silent, slender plinths, listening for the hum of their ethereal subtlety.
Truitt was a color ecstacist, a superlative neologism that goes beyond the everyday concept of being an ecstatic. At one point she says that the columnar format dominated her efforts to “set color free in three dimensions for its own sake,” a pursuit she saw as “analogous to my feelings for the freedom of my own body and my own being, as if in some mysterious way I felt myself to be color.” That’s the language of spiritual ecstasy, of finding oneness with god. Which in Truitt’s case is the Polychroma itself.
In a video that accompanies the show, Truitt talks about her process of choosing colors. It is like listening to someone channeling in an altered state. I sat and listened to her rapture with a sense of awe and amazement. If you go, take the time to sit and hear what she is saying.
Talking about her extremely minimalist painting series called Arundel, Truitt had this to say:
In these paintings I set forth, to see for myself how they appear, what might be called the tips of my conceptual icebergs in that I put down so little of all that they refer to. I try in them to show forth the forces I feel to be a reality behind, and more interesting than, phenomena.
The reality behind and more interesting than phenomena. That nails it.
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